Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Learning to Love Software

Essay published in Artifact 1(3): 149-158 (2007).

During the 1990s, cultural recycling and visual “scratch mixing” became graphic design’s standard operating procedures, inside and outside the classroom. The digital transformation of design processes encouraged this transformation by enabling the endless recirculation of existing material. It also forced educators to focus energy on teaching software, which was seen as a necessary evil on the path to becoming a designer.

Yet while design educators had turned away from formal analysis towards a more impressionistic, culturally based, referential approach, software writers had been systematically organizing image-making into menus of properties, parameters, filters, and so on, converting the Bauhaus theory of visual language into comprehensive visual tools. Photoshop, for example, is a systematic study of the features of an image—its contrast, size, color model, and so on. InDesign and Quark Xpress are structural explorations of typography; they are software machines for exploring leading, alignment, spacing, and column structures as well as image placement and page layout.

These tools have cast a net around our field of practice, filtering our daily production of typography, symbols, images, and information systems. To what degree do we understand the formal constraints and possibilities of these tools? No theory or pedagogical practice has appeared to address the role of digital technologies in shaping and describing the formal language of design.

In the 1920s, faculty at the Bauhaus and other vanguard schools analyzed visual form according to formal parameters: from point, line, and plane to color, texture, pattern, scale, and contrast. The idea of looking at two-dimensional design as a universal, perceptually based “language of vision” shaped design education around the world. The Bauhaus Vorkurs or Basic Course remains today the model—at least nominally—for first-year foundation programs in countless art programs, which aim to expose students to a common language of form underlying all the arts.

Johannes Itten, the first leader of the Basic Course, invited students to experience color, texture, and shape from a personal, sometimes mystical point of view. In contrast, the Hungarian-born Constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who taught at the Bauhaus from 1923–8, believed that the Basic Course should lay bare a system of elements ratified by a shared society and a common humanity. Similarly, Josef Albers, who came to the Bauhaus as a student and then taught alongside Moholy-Nagy in the Basic Course, created a pedagogy that favored systematic thinking over personal intuition, objectivity over emotion. The Russian émigré Wassily Kandinsky contributed theories of geometry and color through his teaching and his book Point and Line to Plane, which called for the creation of a basic “dictionary of elements” and a universal “grammar” underlying all the arts.

Since the 1940s, numerous educators have refined and expanded on this systematic approach to two-dimensional design, from Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, to Itten, Max Bill, and Gui Bonsieppe at the Ulm School in Germany, to Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann in Switzerland, to the “new typographies” of Wolfgang Weingart, Dan Friedman, and Katherine McCoy in Switzerland and the U.S.. These educators each articulated a structural approach to design from distinct and original points of view.

Since the 1960s, postmodern artists and designers have rejected the idea—cherished by the builders of the Bauhaus and other modernist institutions—that communication might have a universal basis. Postmodernism asserts that a cultural artifact can be understood only in terms of a specific place, time, and audience. This relativist position makes it futile to speak of any inherent meaning in an image or object, as all people will bring their own cultural biases and personal experiences to bear on the act of interpretation. As postmodernism itself became a dominant ideology in the 1980s and 90s, in both the academy and the marketplace, the design process got mired in the act of referencing cultural styles or tailoring messages to narrowly defined communities of users.

Is it possible now to look back to the modernist undertaking in a manner informed by postmodern theories and critiques, and bring a changed set of values to design thinking? Over the past year, my colleagues and I at Maryland Institute College and Art in Baltimore have been exploring form-based exercises in design, at the graduate and undergraduate levels. This essay presents some of our thinking about design and software. Over the past decade, our students had become adept at understanding design from a cultural point of view, but they have less confidence in building concepts abstractly: for example, by manipulating scale, contrast, timing/sequence, editing (in both the filmic and literary senses), hierarchy, grids, diagrammatic structures, and so on. We are exploring the interconnected languages of print, film, new media, and architecture, and we are looking at how software enables and limits what designers do.

In his essay “After Effects, or Velvet Revolution” (2006), media critic Lev Manovich proposes to add new terms to the dictionary of visual language: compositing, layering, transparency, and hybridity. These principles are not in themselves new. Indeed, all were explored by designers in the avant-garde period using via mechanical and light-chemical technologies by. Compositing (the compression of multiple images onto a single surface) is seen in composite prints such as El Lissitzky’s The Constructor, date. Transparency (the visibility of one surface through another) is described in Gyorgy Kepes’s 1947 Language of Vision [check/note] as a natural effect that designers and artists since Picasso have manipulated in distinctly intellectual ways. Layering (the separation of an image into overlapping components) has been a feature of multicolor printing processes for hundreds of years. Hybridity (the mixing of typographic, photographic, and/or linear images within a simultaneous frame or surface) was actively pursued in avant-garde posters, advertisements, and book designs. Even in the 1910s and 20s, the technologies of mechanical reproduction were all well-established: halftone process (1880s), photography (1840s), lithography (1780s), and letterpress (1450s). Avant-garde artists and designers used these existing technologies in new ways, exposing the processes of production and emphasizing disjunction, collision, and simultaneity.

In today’s context, what makes layering, transparency, and hybridity new again is their ubiquitous accessibility through commonly available software. They have become universal. Manovich calls the revolution “velvet” because it happened without being much remarked upon. Suddenly, we are here. In contrast, the historical avant-garde movements broke with history by exposing the language of production, inventing a new form language that remains very much alive today—indeed, this language fundamentally informs the contemporary software environment.

Several software packages emerged over the course of the 1990s as industry standards, many of them now consolidated in the product line of a single company, Adobe, whose Creative Suite is licensed and taught in countless schools around the U.S. and the world. The close integration of the CS interfaces allows designers to move easily among applications. Many programs outside the Creative Suite also mirror these interfaces, implementing what has become a common language. AfterEffects has been called “Photoshop with a timeline,” and InDesign has been called “Illustrator with pages.” Flash and Illustrator treat vector graphics in similar ways. One can envision a day when one massive application will allow the authoring of all forms of media: still and moving, vector and bitmap, print and multimedia.

That application (let’s call it Ubershop) might look a lot like Photoshop, the first image editing software to become culturally pervasive. Used by graphic designers, photographers, animators, architects, illustrators, Web designers, and millions of amateurs, Photoshop provides the basic model for many other applications. The verb “to photoshop” has entered the general vocabulary as slang, referring to any digital manipulation of an image, as in “Let’s photoshop that zit.”

Photoshop was invented by Thomas and John Knoll, the sons of an avid amateur photographer and college professor, who kept a color and black-and-white darkroom in the family basement. The two brothers produced an experimental application called Display in 1987, tackling such problems as how to represent gray scales on an Apple Macintosh Plus. The following year they turned their research into ImagePro, a commercial product designed to manipulate and correct images that had been created in other software. Adobe licensed the product in 1989, releasing it as Photoshop 1.0 in February 1990 after ten months of further development. From the beginning, Adobe marketed Photoshop as a general-use rather than professionals-only tool, releasing a Windows version in 1993.

From its earliest incarnations, Photoshop featured a palette of tools, thus implementing the GUI vernacular familiar to Mac users. The marquis, lasso, magic wand, and eye dropper, which date back to Photoshop’s earliest toolbars, represent Photoshop’s guiding principle: the ability to select elements of an image and perform changes on that selection. Photoshop’s early toolbars also included the pencil, brush, and type tools (allowing the user to author marks within the program, as in the various “paint” programs that were popular at the time). The act of selection, however, rather than creation, is at the heart of Photoshop, and it is this principle that made the program original and uniquely useful. Although Photoshop has evolved into an ever more powerful authoring tool, its origins in the alchemical darkroom—a place of dodging, burning, correcting, and balancing—remain central to Photoshop’s function.

A major advance in the Photoshop interface occurred in 1994, when the Layers feature separated the image in a new way, based not on color relationships among pixels but rather on a sequence of actions performed over time. Photoshop automatically creates a new layer whenever the user conducts certain actions, such as cut-and-paste or adding text. Layers enable parts of the image to be manipulated independently of the rest: any layer can be filtered, transformed, masked, multiplied, and so forth, and these activities can each be tweaked and reversed ad infinitum. Adjustment layers allow global changes to the image, such as levels and curves, to be saved as separate sets of data, which can be revised or discarded at a later time. The source file becomes an archaeology of its own making, a stack of elements seen simultaneously in the main window, but represented as a vertical sedimentation in the Layers palette. The History palette, introduced in 1998, took the idea of Layers to a micro-level, making a record of nearly every action performed and rendering the principle of layers explicitly temporal.

Layers appear today in nearly every graphics application, from Photoshop to Illustrator, Flash, FinalCut, and AfterEffects. The metaphor of layers comes from the physical world. It also reflects historic methods of assembling images for reproduction. Most printing techniques require that an image be separated into layers before it can be reproduced; each color requires its own stone, plate, film, screen, and so on. While contemporary technologies automate this process, making it more or less invisible to the designer, the act of articulating a printed work into layers required conscious planning in the era of pre-digital design and production. Prior to the early 1990s, “mechanicals” were art boards over which layers of acetate were precisely aligned. The designer or production artist adhered every element of the page—type, images, blocks of color—to the appropriate layer on the mechanical, so that any element touching or passing behind any other element was on its own acetate layer.

Historically, designers have tended to hide the layered construction of the printed page, but experimental work uncovers visual possibilities by moving layers around before they are printed. The Swiss designer Wolfgang Weingart experimented extensively in this manner in the 1970s and 80s, shifting the films used to create offset plates to produce unexpected textures and juxtapositions. Many designers have explored an off-register or misprinted look, seeking rawness by exposing the layers of the printing process. Contemporary designers including Ryan McGuiness and Joshua Davis create graphic images composed of enormous numbers of layers that overlap in arbitrary, uncoordinated ways, allowing the layers to maintain separate identities in the final piece.

Media critic Steven Johnson points to layers as a constructive principle in contemporary media. Describing The Sopranos in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, Johnson identifies “multiple threading” as the use of a large number of parallel but connected stories: “a single scene in The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot atop another” (69). Johnson’s book includes diagrammatic timelines comparing TV crime dramas of the 1970s to those of today—not surprisingly, the timelines resemble those used in animation software. Looking at electronic games, television, and the Internet, Johnson urges us to ignore the content of these media and to look, instead, at their structure and at the type of thinking they elicit from viewers and users.

Calling attention to the means of construction is, of course, a distinctly modernist principle. Although some design instructors resent having to teach software, wishing to relegate it to lower-level technicians, software skills can be taught in a way that explores the structures and metaphors found in the interfaces we use. A problem I developed for my Graphic Design I class uses layers to carry students from the physical world to the virtual one, ending in a time-based piece: the layers of a cut-paper collage become layers that change in time. The project is done first by hand and then in Illustrator and Flash. The layers in the Illustrator file can be turned on and off or can be individually manipulated to produce design variations; the source file becomes a secondary interface, a machine for creating style frames for the final animation. Layers from Illustrator are imported directly into Flash for manipulation in the timeline.

Layers, once hidden in obscure mechanical processes, have become intuitive and universal. Working with Photoshop layers can foster the visual literacy of children as well as college-level art students. I showed my six-year-old daughter how to build a face in layers and then selectively turn them on and off to create different portraits. Labeling each layer (blue eyes, green eyes, and so on) helped her see the file as a database of assets. These same principles structure the Flash-based fashion and makeup games she plays on the Internet. Although the content of such games may be normative and banal, learning to recognize their underlying structure is empowering to some degree, allowing her to make the shift from consumer to producer. Now at age seven, she assembles her own virtual paper dolls from Googled images. The twenty years ago, the idea of “visual literacy” emphasized uncovering the ideological biases of media; today, it centers on production, on learning the tools. Moreover, the tools are becoming universal, shared across a mass global society.

Lev Manovich argues in his essay “Generation Flash” that a new modernism is on the rise, in which “software critique” is replacing “media critique.” The post-modern project was to unpack the ideological bias of mass media. In the 1980s Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Richard Prince deployed the techniques of mechanical reproduction to repurpose the archive of mass communication and expose the politics of representation. The new “software critique” is less politico-intellectual and more technical, concerned not so much with what things mean as with how they are made. A younger generation is concerned less with challenging the systems of mass media than with building alternative communication networks. What you say is ceding to how you say it. Form has trumped content.
Something is surely lost in this turn away from the critical and towards the practical. A return to basics is not an end, however, but a beginning, a cleansing of the lens before we prepare to shoot, an examination of the hardware and software of visual language before we plunge ourselves into practice. The ends of design are determined by authors, users, publishers, and clients. Formal studies leave those ends open, avoiding applied projects that imitate “real world” situations.

Manovich explains that his term “Generation Flash” refers not to a specific software program but rather to a broader cultural movement. It is telling, nonetheless, that he plucked the name from the commercial realm (now part of the Adobe brand hegemony). Flash straddles the domains of the GUI toolbar and code-based authoring. It recalls the interface models of Photoshop and Illustrator while also speaking the language of Java, albeit through its own idiosyncratic vocabulary and syntax.

Not all software follows the Photoshop interface model. Processing, created by Benjamin Fry and Casey Reas, invites artists and designers to generate imagery through code. With its direct syntax and elegant interface, Processing enables users with minimal programming experience to create rule-based animations and interactive or self-evolving works. Processing.org’s reference page resembles the table of contents of a post-Bauhaus design textbook, with master terms such as Structure, Shape, Color, Image, Transform, and Typography mixed in with geekier terms such as Data, Control, Input, Math, and Constants. Like Flash Action Script, Processing demands the designer to think in a new way, putting aside the timeline and the toolbar and learning to write instructions for generating any mark on the screen and defining its behavior.

Software is a legitimate and necessary element of what we do in the classroom. Teaching software can be intellectually rewarding to students and faculty alike. Software critique involves looking at how the interfaces we use both limit and enable our work. This means working with commercial applications (the industry standard) as well as exposing our students to code—first in rudimentary ways, but ultimately at a more advanced level.

The post-modern arsenal is not about to disappear from the practice of art and design. “Remix” and appropriation are facts of contemporary life. They are the normal science of our time. Borrowing and sharing have become second-nature (and are thus the site of heated legal and economic contest). Rather than try to reign in the current appetite for referencing and quotation, we ask, instead, if there is another way to construct images in the contemporary world. Starting from an analytical approach to design thinking, each producer will animate design’s core structures from his or her own point of view and from his or her own place in the world. The goal, ultimately, is to articulate a range of formal and conceptual tools useful to nearly any designer and meaningful to nearly any public.